Shame is Not Your Enemy
Talking about shame can bring up strong feelings and it’s an emotion we avoid at almost any cost. It can be paralysing and often comes with the damning voice of a harsh inner critic. Shame can be physically punishing, too. Tunnel vision, erratic breathing, stomach pain and paralysis are just a few common symptoms - people have their own unique ones too.
If you were to ask people if they see their shame as a good thing, they’re likely to say, “Hell, no! How could an emotion that is so debilitating, serve any good?”
To answer the question, it’s important to understand the origins and function of shame. Shame is one of the earliest emotions we experience. It comes before guilt, and it’s personal. Guilt says, “you did something bad” whereas shame says, “you are bad”.
Why then, do we have an emotion that seeks to create personal flaws and berate us? It all comes down to survival. When we are born, we are entirely reliant on other people to stay alive. We need someone to meet our most basic human needs, otherwise we’d perish and die. For this reason, we are physiologically programmed to make forming attachments with people our number one priority – people who can fulfil our needs and prevent us from death.
In an ideal world, caregivers will learn the child’s needs through attuning to them. An example would be a parent who begins to know the difference between their baby’s cries, and what each cry means. All the child has to do is be themselves and their needs are met. When this happens consistently throughout the child’s early life, they internalise (subconsciously) something like this: “I am safe, I am loved unconditionally, and my feelings are valid.” A child raised this way will become an adult with high self-esteem, plenty of self-worth and someone who trusts their feelings.
Sadly, all too often this is not the case. People with low self-esteem and/or low self-worth were often raised by caregiver(s) who were unable to consistently attune to them. Maybe they were busy with work, or they were dealing with their own unresolved issues. Either way, this child’s needs were not met, their feelings were not validated, and they were not accepted unconditionally. This child learned to believe that parts of them were unworthy of their caregiver’s attention, and therefore unlovable.
The child whose caregiver(s) were not able to attune to them has no fewer needs than the child who was raised by attentive caregivers. Their needs are the same, and needs must be met. As far as the child is concerned, these needs can only be met via someone else, so forming attachments is critical.
In an environment where caregivers are unable to attune to their child, the child will instead attune to their caregiver(s). They will learn what gets their needs met and what doesn’t. An example might be a child who senses that their caregiver is unable to sooth them if they cry. Eventually, this child will learn to be silent in order to get their need for soothing met. As the child reaches school age, their caregiver(s) may only praise academic achievement. Sensing this, the child begins to suppress their creative, artistic parts. Many people in the LGBT+ community believe their sexuality will threaten the relationship with their caregiver(s), and so they learn to suppress it. The child’s aim is to present a version of themselves they think is most acceptable to their caregiver(s). This preserves the attachment and therefore ensures their survival. The price for survival is the denial, rejection and abandonment of parts of their authentic selves.
What does this have to do with shame? When a child believes that parts of them are unacceptable to their caregiver(s), or they prevent them from getting their needs met, they unconsciously believe that these parts are a threat to their survival. For that reason, the unconscious mind manoeuvres to ensure these parts are never seen again. How best can this be achieved? Easy - bury the parts with a tonne of shame. That way, if they ever come to the surface, so will shame. Shame will take over the body (paralysis) and mind (inner critic - “stop being an idiot”), and the child will stop in their tracks. It is a painful, yet very effective method.
Shame is a survival strategy - it is not the enemy. Shame is what allowed a child to feel safe. Shame is what helped them maintain an attachment with their caregiver(s) so they could get their basic needs met. The child who feels shame does so as a way of accommodating the shortcomings of their caregiver(s). In the body and mind, the alternative is certain death.
So many books and self-help articles propose some notion of banishing or killing shame. This aggressive and deeply unkind approach to shame is ineffective and only creates more internal conflict – not least because it suggests shaming our shame is the solution.
Shame does not need to be banished, nor shamed, nor killed off. At some point in our lives, shame was our greatest ally. It was a part of us that ensured our survival. We heal from our shame using radical compassion and by giving it a voice in safe spaces. We recognise that our shame is a response the limitations of those who were unable to love us unconditionally.
We heal our shame by offering ourselves radical and unconditional love. We demonstrate that love through the way we treat ourselves, and the way we speak to ourselves. We heal by choosing love over shame.